“I have heard that in ancient times there were the so-called Spiritual Beings:
They stood between Heaven and Earth, connecting the Universe;
They understood and were able to control both Yin and Yang,
the two fundamental principles of nature;
They inhaled the vital essence of life;
They remained unmoving in their spirit;
Their muscles and flesh were as one –
This is the Tao, the Way you are looking for.”
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Ti Nei Ching),
Like any quote from ancient texts this of course can be interpreted in many different ways. This is the difficulty of studying ancient books, it always comes down to ones own perspective when reading it. But even with that said this passage does have some implications to us as martial artists, qigong players and people doing self work. Of course, from my perspective….
Standing between Heaven and Earth is how I tend to describe human beings during my classes and yet it is only the beginning of working towards finding vertical in the body. The ability to stand in such a way that the spine and skeletal system transfer most of the weight through the body to the earth is something we all need to practice as martial artists for structural and combative reasons. In the taiji classics there is mention of this type of training and every master I have trained with begins with this as a fundamental to the art. Releasing the tension of the body that normally suspends the weight in the musculature allows those muscle groups to relax and increases their ability to do work. “Stand Tall like the Monkey”, “The Taiji Ridgepole”, “The Iron Rod” and so on are names I have heard from teachers working on this state with their students. But while none of this is new information to most taiji players nor would the alignments of the hips, pelvis, neck and so on – I find there is another layer that seems to rarely be spoken about in public or print. This is my purpose of writing today.
The discussion of Yin / Yang is done to death and in most cases done simplistically and with little thought to the depth of the principle. Sure most people training can discuss the equal oppositions, that context means everything and probably quote some medical or philosophical texts on the matter. I think that putting the principles into practice has to be the number one priority in our training however and quoting the famous is not the same as understanding it for yourself. For instance in order to stand between heaven and earth we need to understand the interplay of the opposites deeply to create relaxation (sung jin – relaxed like a pine tree). Studying the interplay in our own bodies is a way to directly experience this deep principle and to me that is what training is about. Discussing the universe is great over tea or in college dorm rooms over bongs – but studying it inside your own body, which is a part of the universe like everyone’s, is another matter. How do we stand between heaven and earth? To reach the top of the head towards heaven first I need to press my feet down into the earth, effectively going down to go up. Reaching up with the head creates downwards in the body and increases the pressure on the feet. The two interposing opposites changing and complimenting one another.
Standing practices of qigong work this a great deal, standing still, unmoving. It seems to me that most of the issues I see with peoples skills has to do with skipping over these things that seem too “simple” to train – instead moving on towards what they as students think Taiji or Qigong or whatever is. If there is one thing I am confident in it’s that we never know what the hell we are being taught until much later on. The best skilled people I have met have gone back to basics, seeing the importance of learning to stand, sit, walk and turn as the basis of their art. The ability to stand with a level of true relaxation (sung) allows one to learn to move in that state and ideally to combat in it as well. Taiji is not about focusing on winning and losing, in combat it is about allowing the yin yang interchange to continue in your body and between the two of you. Tightening up, thoughts of “winning” or “losing” are a departure from the present moment and as such are an attempt to stop the interchange of yin/yang for your own desires. Not the way the universe works, it’s going to change whether you like it, let it, or not so maybe taiji is a way to learn to deal with that? Although I am no great master of anything, I know those rare moments when I can get out of my own way and just let things change without fighting them going with the flow, my life is a lot easier. So is fighting in this way. Fighting, without fighting.
The great principle of the interchange of yin/yang (taiji) is a lot to try and digest. Go down to go up, press the foot backward to create force forward, but do not try to be strong, just be strong. Very do or do not, there is no try. Integrate your mind into your flesh, allow them as yin / yang to work together like heaven and earth. There is no “I” controlling “my” body. I am my body. If I cannot even get past the duality of the thinking that mind and body are separate how am I ever going to deal with the idea that the opponent and I are one? When we study yin/yang we are working to study the entire universe while we are ourselves are part of it. So we start studying ourselves, our training methods, forms, postures, breath exercises are a great way to work towards this. But we cannot lose sight of the fact they are work. Important, difficult, frustrating work. I know for me it has never gotten easier either, the more I seem to get entrenched in it, the more there is to unravel. More than a lifetimes work that’s for sure.
So I guess my message is, the simplest stuff is the hardest. The first lessons are the most advanced. Focusing on goals distract you from the present work, just do it. To quote my teacher – “Shut up and train.” Think I will go take that advice.
Neil the Kung Fu guy
January 27 2016